58 pages 1 hour read

D. H. Lawrence

The Rocking Horse Winner

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1926

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Rocking Horse Winner”

D. H. Lawrence published “The Rocking Horse Winner” in 1926, just four years before his death in 1930. He had written a story, “Glad Ghosts,” for inclusion in Lady Cynthia Asquith’s supernatural fiction anthology Ghost Book. She did not like the story, partly because of the celebration of male sexuality and other erotic undertones. Lawrence wrote “The Rocking Horse Winner” for her instead. Lawrence sets the story in a haunted house, appropriate for a “ghost” story: “And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money!” (Paragraph 5).

In the house lives a mother, a father, a young son, two young daughters, and servants. The son, the eldest of the children, longs to overcome the “grinding sense of the shortage of money,” to bring “luck” to his mother (Paragraph 3). The story begins as a fable or fairy tale might: “There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck” (Paragraph 1). Those things that most people would attribute to good luck mean nothing or little to her. Her marriage started in love, then “turned to dust” (Paragraph 1). She has “bonny” children, but she cannot love them. She subjects herself and her family to a life of pretense: pretense she is a good mother, pretense their family can afford the expensive lifestyle they project, pretense they are superior to their neighbors, pretense they are successful even though the handsome father’s prospects never materialize, never monetize. The narrator calls it a “cover up,” but “what it was that she must cover up she never knew” (Paragraph 1).

The children hear the unspoken phrase, “There must be more money” (Paragraph 4). It whispers everywhere in the house. They communicate with their eyes, exchanging glances to confirm they each heard the words, but never speaking it aloud. The expensive toys hear it: the rocking horse with the “champing head,” the big smirking doll, the “foolish puppy” taking the place of a teddy bear.

The boy, Paul, addresses it in a roundabout fashion, asking his mother why they have no car and use his uncle’s car or taxis. She blames it on the father, who has no “luck.” Paul asks if luck is money, having heard his Uncle Oscar refer to “filthy lucker.” She corrects him, noting it is “lucre, not luck” (Paragraph 16). Yet she defines luck as what “causes you to have money” (Paragraph 18). Therefore, she explains, it is better to be born into luck than into wealth; if one is born lucky, they will become wealthy, but if one is wealthy without luck, they might lose the wealth. Nevertheless, she says, no one knows why some people are lucky and some aren’t. God might know, but if so, He isn’t about to tell anyone. When Paul asks if she is lucky, she answers that she and his father have no luck. She might have had luck before she married, but she married an unlucky man. Mired in her self-pity, the lines around her mouth reveal she hides something.

Paul asserts that he is “lucky.” God told him. His mother mocks him with a bitter laugh, saying she hopes it is true, but she suspects it is not. This angers the boy and makes him “want to compel her attention” (Paragraph 40). He wants luck. He sits on his rocking horse in the nursery, charging with frenzy, whipping the horse, hoping to get to luck. It frightens his sisters into silence, until one day his oldest sister, Joan, says she wishes he would quit.

Paul’s mother and her brother, Oscar Creswell, catch Paul on one of his furious rides. Uncle Oscar asks if he is riding a winner, and Paul says he “got there.” His uncle wants to know where “there” is, and he asks the horse’s name. Paul says he has different names, but the week before he was Sansovino. Uncle Oscar, who recognizes the name Sansovino as the horse who won the Ascot the week before, wants to know how Paul came up with that name. Paul’s sister Joan says he talks about the races with Bassett, the gardener.

Uncle Oscar, who got Bassett his job, begins his investigation. In his conversation with Basset, he discovers Paul and Basset have been talking about the horse races, but Basset recommends he ask Paul about it directly rather than getting the story from him. Uncle Oscar takes Paul for a ride to his home in the country, and Paul tells him that he and Bassett are partners, that they bet together and win when Paul is sure about the winner. He doesn’t mind sharing this with his uncle, whom he considers “lucky” because he gave Paul a 10-shilling note that he put on a winner.

Paul is sure about Daffodil. Uncle Oscar doesn’t believe it. When he discovers Paul bets in pounds, not pennies, he begins to take him a little more seriously. Daffodil is running in the Lincoln races, and Uncle Oscar decides to take Paul, offering to put a fiver on any horse Paul chooses. Paul bets on Daffodil, who wins and pays 4 to 1. Uncle Oscar, astonished, listens intently when Paul offers him a partnership with him and Bassett.

Bassett acknowledges the boy’s strange gift and tells Uncle Oscar, “It’s as if he had it from heaven” (Paragraph 118). Uncle Oscar decides to join. Paul explains he and Bassett only bet the big money when he’s sure about a horse. When the Leger Race is on, Paul is sure about Lively Spark and puts £1,000 on the horse. It wins and pays 10 to 1, and Paul makes £10,000. Uncle Oscar only bet £200. The boy makes him nervous.

When he asks what the boy plans to do with the money, Paul tells him he started it for his mother, to make the house stop whispering. He doesn’t want his mother to know about the winnings because he fears she might stop him. He accepts his uncle’s scheme to put £5,000 with the family lawyer, to be doled out £1,000 a year for five consecutive years on the mother’s birthday from an anonymous donor.

Paul anticipates joy when his mother receives the birthday gift, but instead her face hardens as she hides the letter. She meets with the lawyer and asks for the total £5,000. When Uncle Oscar relays to Paul the message from the lawyer, Paul agrees to his mother’s demand, thinking he will be “sure” again for one of the upcoming races—the Grand National, the Lincolnshire, or the Derby. The mother immediately blows through the £5,000 on luxury items, and the house explodes, the voices erupting into a frenzy, insatiable for even more money: Now there must be more money than ever.

The first two races pass. Paul isn’t “sure” and loses just a little. Obsessed with being “sure” for the Derby, he becomes so frenetic and wild-eyed the mother grows alarmed. She wants to send him to the seaside. Paul says he doesn’t want to leave the house until after the Derby. He has outgrown the rocking horse as a “toy.” It now resides in his bedroom to keep him company.

The mother has “sudden” anxiety attacks about the boy, especially one evening while attending a big party in town. She calls home to ask about the children and is told Paul is in his room. When she returns, she stands outside his bedroom door and hears noise that is strangely familiar. She opens the door to see Paul furiously riding the rocking horse. He calls out “It’s Malabar!” and crashes to the floor. He calls out for Bassett, “It’s Malabar!”

Paul remains unconscious for three days. Bassett asks to come up to see him, just for a minute. Malabar came in first and paid 14 to 1, and Paul won £70,000. Bassett tells him he now has a total of £80,000. Paul asks his mother if she thinks he’s lucky, and with his last words, he rambles feverishly, “I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure—oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!” (Paragraph 239). His mother denies that he ever did tell her about his luck. He dies that night. Speaking with the mother, Uncle Oscar marvels, “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad” (Paragraph 242).